Christian Modesty and the Skirt Police

By Robin Schumacher

My oldest daughter (age 16) participates in a number of Christian activities outside of the standard school subjects of reading-writing-and-arithmetic, such as debate and government, which requires the kids to be together for tournaments and group meetings. At such events, the kids—especially the girls—are given a dress code to which they are to adhere.

At a recent competition, a woman approached my daughter who was with a group of her friends and in an ugly way criticized her for the skirt she was wearing. What was the offense?

Her skirt came to the middle of her knee rather than fully below it.

"Don't push the limits. Don't even try!" my daughter was told before the woman turned to walk away.

At a different, unrelated event that took place in the summer, the facility was hot so my daughter rolled up her sleeves because she was warm, and was denounced again for breaking the dress code by someone else. Why?

Her elbows were showing.

Let me quickly add what the comedic author Dave Barry sometimes says in his writings when he makes what seems to be an outlandish claim: I swear I am not making this up.

Forgetting the silliness of the actual request for a moment, these people seem to think that my daughter has the mindset of, "Woo-hoo…sailor! Over here! Look at these elbows!"

We've experienced such things over and over again. At one Christian school we attended the teachers were armed with rulers and routinely made the girls stand at their desk while their skirts were measured. At another event, my daughter had been sitting a long time and actually dared to cross her legs, which resulted in one knee showing. A woman present made a huge public outcry stating that she had five boys there and didn't want them "seduced" by such a display.

Really? Perhaps folks like that would prefer that Christians adopt the Islamic burqa as our dress code for women as Muslims have done. There would certainly be no worries of women showing too much skin then.

While I am sure that the same people who are against skirts coming to the middle of the knee would caustically scoff at the notion of a burqa for women, my reply is: not so fast. Why is the Muslim standard wrong and your standard of not showing elbows or knees spot on?

The What and Why of Modesty

Those wishing to justify their female dress code actions point to Paul's statement in his first letter to Timothy where he says, "Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness" (1 Tim. 2:9–10). Peter has a very similar set of verses for women in his first letter that reads: "Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God" (1 Pet. 3:3–4).

Rather than simply plucking these verses out and reading into them something that may not be there (an exercise called eisegesis, which is injecting one's own agenda or presuppositions into the text), let's examine things in context.

Paul's letter to Timothy is one where the Apostle is instructing a young pastor on administering his church. Chapter two of the letter deals primarily with directions relating to public worship. After a brief admonition on prayer, Paul then makes his statement regarding women's dress in church.

The Apostle first says that women are to "adorn themselves", which in the Greek (kosmeō) literally means "to put in order". Paul then uses three terms to describe what women's dress should be like in the church.

The first is "proper" (kosmios, a word play on the word for "adorn"), which means "appropriate" or "respectable". The second is "modestly" (aidōs) that simply means "common" or "ordinary". The final term is "discreetly" (sōphrosynē), which refers to something that is reasonable or moderate.

Note that none of these terms has a direct reference to anything that is of a sexual nature, which is what many believers try to read into the text. This becomes quite clear in what Paul says next in his follow up: "not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments". Peter says the exact same thing: "braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses".

If it's not a sexual concern that Paul and Peter have, then what is the impetus behind the dress code?

In the first century, women of means would weave gold ornaments and pearls through their hair to call attention to themselves and flaunt their wealth. The same was done with other jewelry and expensive dresses. For example, in his work Natural History (9.58) Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman historian, describes a dress of Lollia Paulina, who was the wife of the Emperor Caligula, that was worth several hundred thousand dollars by today's standards.

What is in the sights of both apostles is the ostentatious exhibition of extravagant dress that calls attention to oneself, feeds pride, and takes the spotlight off of what should be the center of attention in a worship setting: God and His glory.

Another point worth making is that these verses do not forbid the actual braiding of hair, wearing jewelry or nice clothing. Such things sometimes characterize Godly women in the Bible and are spoken of positively many times (e.g. Genesis 24:53; Song of Solomon 1:10-11, 4:9; Proverbs 31:22). Instead, the thrust of both apostles' arguments are that women should not pridefully call attention to themselves so they are the focus in a worship setting vs. God.

Memo to the Skirt Police

There's no doubt that both women and men can dress in a way that aims at attracting the opposite sex. Deliberately fueling another person's lust is, of course, something that no Christian man or woman needs to engage in.

However, at the same time, I wonder if the same self-appointed apparel police who are distraught over the length of my daughter's skirt have any concern with showcasing their own expensive items of clothing and accessories in a way that pridefully sends a message to those around them, especially in a church assembly? That's what the Biblical verses that speak of women dressing modestly seem to be addressing.

Those with a thimbleful of common sense will understand that decrying the 1/8 inch overage in a woman's skirt length or a revealed elbow makes the Church look petty and downright silly. Moreover, a woman can have a skirt that extends to the floor and still possess the darkest heart in the room.

Instead of worrying so much over excruciating, legalistic, Pharisaic-styled dress code details, perhaps we should all pay attention to what Paul says in concluding his thoughts on modesty and women's dress. I like how Eugene Peterson's The Message puts it: "I want women to get in there with the men in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it" (1 Timothy 2:9–10).

Image Credit: shaindlin; "School girls — London"; Creative Commons

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Published 5-21-13